Retirement Advice 2016

for Mike Thornton and Gregg Painter

Celebrating the move to Byers, 1997 and I.D.s

Celebrating the move to Byers, 1997 and I.D.s

After waiting for lawn service that never came Friday afternoon, Phil and I decided to stay in, stream something on Netflix. I was draining pasta when there was a knock at the door.

Assuming it was the tardy lawn service, Phil yelled, “oh, hell no!”

I found a tall guy parking his bike on my porch, opened the door and asked, “Do you want some spaghetti?”

“No, just a glass of wine,” he replied.

“Shit, it’s Thornton,” Phil exclaimed. “We don’t have any wine. Would you settle for whiskey?”

“We’re eating,” I informed our random guest while filling a third plate, “so you’re having some.”

Soon we sat down to chicken meatballs in butternut squash sauce. The men had their Jameson’s neat with water backs. I’d as soon drink peroxide and there was no wine. I had water.

After mumbling about how we used to drop in on friends but no one does that anymore, Thornton observed, “this is working out very well.”

As he was wheeling off into the sunset, he said, “you need to write a blog of retirement advice.” Thornton is retiring this year. So is Painter. Two colleagues from DSA’s first year at the Byers building.

I retired in 2010, six years ago, had to look it up. That’s significant, isn’t it? That I no longer remember when I retired? Six years makes me experienced. I could give advice.

Nothing stays the same. The first September I felt bereft when school started, a guilty void deep in the gut. I alleviated it by taking a trip to Chicago. The feeling lessened the next year. The third it was a mere shadow flitting briefly over my mood.

Nothing changes. After retirement, you do the same things you’ve always done. You just take your time about them. I often read more than an hour before turning out the light, can you imagine?

Know thyself and thy beloved. Phil worked at home for years, was justifiably nervous over my being here during the day. I tend to interrupt his work to expound on a brilliant idea I just had or to ask for tech support or see if he wants to go get coffee. We had to make rules. Now before interrupting I ask: is this a good time? I worked in noisy, people-rich environments. Although I consider myself an introvert, I also have strong interaction needs. Phil goes for days without talking to anyone and he’s fine. I get stir crazy after seven hours. Two years ago, I started teaching one creative writing class a semester, come home happy to be sequestered again.

You gotta have a plan. That’s what I tell everyone, but my own plan was vague. I did have a list. Before I retired I wrote down all the things I wanted to do, from a month in Paris to cleaning out my files. That list was my security blanket: if I started freaking out I read it and felt reassured. Writing was on the list, of course, but in nebulous “find someone to translate” fashion.

Give yourself a break. I spent the first months puttering around—a little translating, a little essay writing, a lot of sleeping in. It was two years before I started this blog. In those two years we took five domestic trips and I was the manager of our kitchen remodel. I did transition projects: cleaned out school files, created a new workroom for myself, subbed for friends. You may not want to return to your former workplace, but for me that was always the plan. I started teaching too late to acquire sufficient retirement.

That doesn’t sound like a break? It was. Waking without an alarm. Reading the morning news at breakfast. Having a second cup of coffee. Once I settled upstairs in the back of the house, in that little room with windows on three sides, I was where I needed to be. I spent most mornings in my mini-solarium, sometimes warily feeling my way around my own writing, sometimes playing solitaire, soaking up silence. Silence! I made lunch and coffee dates with friends, engagements impossible while teaching.

Decide what you want to accomplish. Yes, my dears, you must accomplish something. Lie around on the couch or beach and you’ll be back at work or dead in two years. Remember the aforementioned list. Make one. Realize some items may be unattainable. Paris is still on my list, but I’m prepared to let it go if I must.

I started the blog in mid-2012, with the intention of writing an 800-word essay twice a month, didn’t know if I could do it. Broken writing promises litter my life like autumn leaves. But in four years, I have never missed a deadline. I prefer the Spanish word for retirement: jubilación. In my jubilation I’ve become a writer at last.



Posted in Education, Memoir, Writing | 2 Comments

On Prejudice

Listening to monologues my eighth graders have written, I sometimes hear the natural aversion of youth to age. In a catalog of things that bug her, one girl includes how annoying it is to get stuck behind slow, saggy old people at the mall, and I smile. They write such things artlessly, and few of them stop to think—wait—Ms. Dubrava’s old. Those few glance at me quickly and quickly look away.

These thirteen-year-olds are used to me. Pardon: most have now turned fourteen and would abhor my saying otherwise. I’ve been their teacher nearly a semester, a significant period in their lives. Some of them have fallen in and out of love twice during that time. I’m lucky they notice me at all with such drama underway. Besides, I try to behave in a way that distracts them from remembering I’m old. I take them on brisk walks to a nearby park to write about nature or casually admit that profanity, judiciously used, may have a place in a good piece of writing.

Because I clearly remember my own, I don’t take offense at their biased age references. My adolescent years occurred mainly in Vero Beach, Florida. I recall walking on the beach with my boyfriend, passing senior citizens and feeling a slight repulsion. Those blooming bellies, drooping butts, jellied arms and thighs! “Gross,” I probably thought, since that was a word of the moment among the young. I don’t remember. What I do recall is vowing: “I am never going to let myself look like that.”

Well, of course. I was young and firm of flesh, without having to do anything. No exercise, no diet. How could it ever be any different? And I must have thought, as do the eighth graders in my classroom now, that the appalling appearance in a bathing suit was a choice. Why, those people must have let themselves age.

Whenever I do remind the children that I’m old, they say dismissively, “Oh, no, Ms. D, you’re not.” It is a wise child who flatters she who controls his grades. But, it is also saying: “we’re making an exception for you. We don’t like saggy old people, but we like you.”

One redeeming thing about the children is they are still, at this age, relatively bias-free, at least when it comes to their teachers. Here are the key questions: Do you like them? Do you know what you’re doing in the classroom? If the answer to those two questions is yes, then they’ll think you’re fine, whether you’re old, young, or have recurring halitosis.

This matter of age discrimination makes me recall the Chicanos. Back in the movimiento days of the seventies, I was frequently the only gringa in a group of friends. Giving me a hug, they would say, “you’re not white anymore: you’re one of us.”

I was always flattered then too. But, when you think about it, it’s prejudice, isn’t it? Unpacking that attitude results in acceptance dependent on pretending you’re not who you are. Same with the kids, who if they have decided they like me, deny my being so many decades different. But like ethnicity, these decades do indeed generate difference.

I suppose it’s our natural bias to like those who resemble us, to look askance on those who do not. A girl entered my classroom wearing earbuds, mouthing words. She realized that a girl she didn’t know was singing along to the same song. Squealing with delight, they finished the lyrics together, gushed about how much they loved that song and declared each other best friends forever.

Like some others, I veered off in another direction, attraction to those unlike me. Witness my years in black and Chicano communities, or my pleasure in hanging out with eighth graders now. I imagine this “opposites attract” trait defines Americans opposed to building border walls. Perhaps it’s also a feature of a new generation: my students, born in 2002, are accepting of the range of ethnicities and genders in their midst. One girl has declared herself Lesbian. “We love you,” they say. “Do you like camping? We heard that Lesbians like camping.” It is the world they live in and I enjoy being there.

We wrote list poems this semester, one variation being a set of instructions. One of the boys wrote “How to be a good person,” but his was mostly a list of prohibitions as it turned out. Don’t ignore your friends’ texts. Don’t forget to do your homework. Things like that. It also included, “don’t tell your grandmother she’s wrinkly.” We all giggled.

Posted in Education, Humor, Memoir | 1 Comment

Wisdom of Touch

Captain Al Keuning, 1963

Captain Al Keuning, 1963, and yes, that’s a cigar in his mouth

[He] maintained a practical, sentimental affection for the specific trade skills that were transformed into the character traits of the men who cultivated them. The draftsman who inked a right angle on a plan, the bricklayer who spread a base of fresh mortar and smoothed it with the trowel before placing the brick on top of it … the master craftsman who verified with a plumb line the verticality of a wall … Now his hands were too delicate … never had acquired the wisdom of touch he’d observed as a boy in his father and the men who worked with him.

Antonio Muñoz Molina, In the Night of Time, Trans. by Edith Grossman


My father sanded a teak deck, ran his hand over it to feel if it were sufficient. It was not. He re-sanded, cleaned the surface thoroughly before laying down the first coat of varnish, then another. Don’t think you’ll walk that deck in anything but bare feet or rubber-soled shoes, even if you are the owner.

Mom came home from her hospital graveyard shift to organize the meal we’d have that evening and see us off to school. Only then did she eat something herself and clean up the kitchen before finally going to bed, because dishes had to be done immediately after every meal, just as beds had to be made as soon as you were out of them in the morning.

She lived in a one-bedroom apartment for a few years after my father died, and I’d come from Denver the evening before, when she’d insisted I take the bed, had made up the couch for herself before I arrived. The time change resulted in my sleeping in. I woke hearing her in the kitchen, knew she’d been up for hours, hurried in the bathroom. By the time I went back to get dressed, the bed was made. “I can’t stand an unmade bed,” she said crisply.

That’s the dark side, but also a bearing wall in the edifice of work with your hands, the physical labor my parents did all their lives. One school summer I waitressed at the same diner as my mother did. She never stopped. If there were no customers to serve, she was wiping tables or filling saltshakers, but she never stopped. I still seldom know when to take a break.

Dad was captain of private yachts, swank vessels with pianos in their living rooms. When Captain Al was docking, boat basin workers would stop what they were doing and come to watch. He managed it so the 75-foot yacht slid smoothly into its berth with no more than a kiss on the piling bumpers. Seamen shook their heads and grinned. It was a fine thing to see.

In those days men worked on their cars. Dad changed oil, spark plugs and filters, replaced or rebuilt carburetors. Our cars never went to a repair shop. His tools were neatly arranged on a pegboard in the garage. A shelf was lined with mayonnaise jars of nuts and bolts and screws and washers, sorted by kind and size. He came home from varnishing a deck, ate and went out to the garage to putter around. He didn’t watch sports, had no hobbies but making and fixing things.

It is no wonder I have a weakness for physical work done well, the exercise of those skills that become the character of the one who practices them. When I was a teenager waitressing at Howard Johnson’s on U.S. 1, there was a breakfast cook, lean and dark. He always had a cigarette in his mouth, the ash lengthening over the grill, and somehow knew the exact moment to flick it into the ashtray on the counter, never dropped ash into an omelet. He cracked two eggs in one hand, never broke one or dropped shell fragments and they always came out the way you’d ordered them: over easy, medium, hard. I was enchanted.

Or recently, the way the Mexican roofers didn’t blink over our steep roof others had declined to scale. Their toes lodged between rafters like mountaineers, they nonchalantly and rapidly pried loose layers of old tiles.

My father placed a palm on a tire, then moved it, appearing to listen like a doctor with a stethoscope, until he’d taken the temperature of several places on that tire. “It’s wearing unevenly,” he announced, and went about rebalancing it. Something in the feel of it on the road had led to that examination. How I admired that in my father. How I wanted to achieve in my own work and life that wisdom of touch.


Posted in Memoir | 2 Comments

Musings in the process of translating Manual Para Enamorarse by Mónica Lavín, provisionally titled Handbook for Falling in Love

As in every translation project, many sentences want rearranging, and nice long ones need to be broken up. Syntax, syntax! If you don’t read Spanish, simply note that the following is a single sentence and move on. It doesn’t matter.

Así fue como me encerré durante las tardes de un mes con sus fines de semana aludiendo, cuando mis colegas o mi hermana me invitaban a comer algunos fines de semana preocupados por mi soltería, recrudecida a los cincuenta y cinco años, al texto de divulgación sobre historiadores notables que escribía para alumnos de bachillerato.

Ah, that fact-filled dependent clause loitering at length between alluding and the alluded to! Smooth in Spanish, but in plain English, the above becomes at least two sentences and puts Rodolfo’s alluding with his alluded to book for high school students.

Two problematic words reside in that one sentence as well. (Lavín has an extensive vocabulary, likes to exercise it.) Recrudecida also exists in English: recrudescent means to break out again after lying latent; to become harsh or raw. In Spanish, crudo, like crude, means raw. I remember its slang use back in the day here in Denver amongst Chicanos. A cruda was a hangover. The morning after, someone might groan, “going to get some menudo, man; gotta repair my crude.”

But fond as that memory is, it isn’t what’s needed here. Colleagues and sister are worried about Rodolfo’s singleness, about his regressing to behavior they’d all hoped never to see from him again. At his age.

The second problem is “divulgation.” Although it also exists in English, we chiefly use the verb “divulge:” to reveal, make public. Rodolfo is writing a texto de divulgación, a text revealing all about well-known historians. So should it be an exposé?

There are always words I get blocked on: in one case, “indispensability” is the literal translation and will not do. Necessity? Boring. Brain not firing. Go get coffee.

Some words or phrases I change immediately: “successfully published books” become bestsellers, “the tone of truth” becomes the ring of truth. Others require mulling over: “wherein I lowered the intelligence level”…should that be “I dumbed it down,” or is that too colloquial for Rodolfo?

Don’t buy strawberry jam, Rodolfo advices. Be imaginative: add cinnamon to orange marmalade. But isn’t grape our ubiquitous jelly? This requires research. Turns out strawberry is preferred by 48% of Americans, compared to 40% who buy grape, in data from 2011 – 2015. Who knew we had so much in common with Mexicans?

Carmela and Rafael are a singing duo of romantic ballads whose career spanned fifty years. They married and stayed married, and their album covers show them embraced or singing practically lip-to-lip, from their young and luscious years to the wrinkles and wattles of age.

American readers, even the tiny sliver of them who read literature in translation, are not going to know who Carmela and Rafael are, nor how perfect an example they make for the kind of photo Luisa wants on that book jacket.

This is one of those translation dilemmas that induce despair. Who have we got to fill that void? Sonny and Cher? Long ago divorced. Johnny Cash and June Carter? Who even sings those bolero kinds of songs? Compared to Carmela and Rafael, we seem jaded. And notice, how in English, we put the man’s name first?

Rodolfo is dressed like an intellectual when Luisa meets him. How is that? I wonder. Luisa gives me a clue by assessing him with a glance and saying she had imagined he wouldn’t dress like an executive, since he’s a writer. So he’s not in suit and tie.

Long ago, at the school where I taught, a rich couple were considering giving us a lot of money. I was one of the teachers selected to attend the meeting. Everyone cleaned up for it. I wore a nice dress and low sensible heels. The principal was in a suit. Our potential benefactors arrived in jeans and t-shirts. Expensive jeans and t-shirts, mind you, and glowing, expensive tans in the middle of winter among us pasty-faced workers, but still.

We have never liked intellectuals in America. So I don’t want to say, “dressed like an intellectual.” Rodolfo had just come from an academic presentation of some sort. We are acutely class conscious in this country, whether we admit it or not. If I say he’s wearing jeans and a tweed jacket, readers will know where to put it.

Jitomates are also featured. Those are just Mexican tomatoes. But in this story, they are more than tomatoes too. Luisa is a redhead, and she turns this thing around. You’ll have to read it. But I have at least two more drafts to go.

Oh, those rich people who visited our school? They gave their money to someone else.




Posted in Translation, Writing | 3 Comments